“Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!” Toppling a Faulty Moral Pillar

By Walt Russell May. 13, 2011 9:32 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Culture, New Testament

1 Thessalonians 5:22:

“Abstain from all appearances of evil” (KJV)

“Abstain from every form of evil” (ESV)

I confess that whenever I encounter this verse, I picture old, withered saints shaking their bony fingers in younger believers’ faces and exhorting them about some questionable behavior. In this recurring scenario, the godly, mature Christians find it necessary to exhort the younger saints, not because they have done something that is evil, but simply because they behaved in a manner that could have the appearance of being evil.

This understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 can be traced back to the King James Version of 1611. The KJV chose the word “appearance” for the Greek word eidos, which means visible form, outward appearance or kind, sort.  Since this translation appeared, well-intentioned Christians have focused on the outward appearance aspect and concluded that we are not only to avoid evil, but we are also to avoid anything that could outwardly appear to be evil. Hence, the genesis of the widely-used ethical dictum, “Avoid every appearance of evil.”

I have good news and bad news for you about this understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. The bad news is you may have been following a moral dictum that is not supported by either its own biblical context or broader biblical ethics.  The good news is that you are now freer than you realized to minister to the hurting people of planet earth. Please allow me to undergird these extravagant claims.

1 Thessalonians is the Apostle Paul’s letter to a group of new Christians who have been persecuted by their fellow citizens in northern Greece for most of their six months in Christ.  It is an adversarial context for the church, so Paul spends much of his time defending his church-planting team’s integrity and actions in chapters 1-3.  In chapters 4-5 (“the moral exhortation” section), he addresses five successive threats to the life of this body. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 is the fifth and final significant issue facing this fledgling church. 

This last issue in vv. 12-22 deals broadly with the concerns that arise when the church gathers for her weekly assembly. Paul gives instructions about how to foster healthy body life in this context by rightly esteeming leaders (vv. 12-13), dealing sensitively with the varying needs of the saints (vv. 14-15), establishing a joyful assembly (vv. 16-18), and not quenching the ministry of the Holy Spirit in prophetic utterances (vv. 19-22).

Given the broader context, we are now ready to look at the immediate context for v. 22.  Notice the logical flow of the argument about prophetic utterances in vv. 19-22:

“Do not quench the Spirit” (v. 19) (the general exhortation);

“Do not despise prophetic utterances (v. 20) (the specific negative aspect of the

exhortation).

“But examine everything carefully” (v. 21) (the contrasting positive aspect of the exhortation);

“hold fast to that which is good” (v. 22) (what to do with good prophecies after examining);

“abstain from every form of evil” or “every evil form of utterance” (v. 23) (what to do with the evil prophetic utterances).

As is generally the case with Scripture, God and the human authors are very specific in their discussions. They seldom sprinkle broad moral sayings in free-standing fashion. By contrast, they usually speak in a closely-argued style, especially in the New Testament letters. Such is the case with 1 Thessalonians 5:22. By removing v. 22 from its very specific context, we abstract the language from its tightly reasoned moorings and create a much more general, vague concept. 

Moreover, did Jesus “avoid every appearance of evil”? I think not! One of His constant criticisms at the hands of religious people was that He spent time with “defiling people” like tax gatherers, swindlers, irreligious people (“sinners”), and probably even prostitutes. By their standards, He seemed regularly to have the appearance of evil. But perhaps this is the accusation we must bear along with Jesus, rather than inappropriately withdrawing from the sin-scarred people in our lives. Perhaps this is also part of the rebuke many receive at the hands of those who don’t read 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in context. My advice?  Topple this faulty moral pillar!

Comments

  • Andy Draycott May. 13, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    Thanks, Walt. You reminded me of Walter Moberly's treatment of Paul in his 'Prophecy and Discernment' where he explores the ethical parameters of assessments of prophecy in several OT settings, in John as well as Paul from the NT, concluding with a chapter relating to today. If true or false prophecy requires discernment so too do claims about good or evil living - that is, appearance (of either good or evil) is not self-evidently self-authenticating to punctual observation. Freedom from judgmentalism is here in this exhortation to discernment.

  • Rodd Umlauf May. 14, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    This was a great article and a must in consideration for those who have a separatist mentality as if the world is going to corrupt us, therefore we must disassosiate with the ungodly.
    In the Old Covenant the community of God had to separate itself from the pagans because they did not have the spiritual power to resist the contaminating forces of evil. But now, when Jesus touches the unclean, He is not contaminated but He purifies the unclean. Instead of becoming unclean by touching the lepers and the dead, His touch cleanses and brings healing. We, who now have the same Spirit that Christ has, can now touch sinners and make them clean with the Gospel. We are called to be salt and light, actively engage the culture of death, and bring life to it through the New Covenant's spiritual power which is far superior to the Old.
    But, a firm and strong faith, and the full armor of God must equip the believer who is called touch the sinner and remain clean.

  • Ken Way May. 16, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    Great word, Walt! Thanks for cutting through the common "Christianese" and getting back to the text!

  • Eric Twisselmann May. 17, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    This is my first visit to this blog, and what a liberating bit of exegesis to stumble across! I can't tell you how often I heard this verse quoted to me in my childhood—usually to impose a feeling of guilt and shame for doing something that a more "mature" (i.e., legalistic) Christian simply didn't think I should be doing.

    Thank you, Walt!

  • Chris Lankford May. 17, 2011 at 9:09 PM

    Thanks for a great reminder of how important the context of a passage is in our understanding of specific guidelines like this one. Have always appreciated your dedication to holy living and good hermeneutics. Both shine here...

  • Jim Laney May. 23, 2011 at 3:06 AM

    I pray that people will only use this freedom to serve God, not as an excuse for the behavior that has been pricking their conscience.

    We seem so prone to misusing our freedoms, don't we? Perhaps that is also one reason people felt the need for the dictim; "Avoid the appearance of evil".

  • Toni Allen May. 28, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    Thank you so much Professor Russell, for your consistent and helpful exposition of difficult passages of scripture. Please blog more often!!

  • E. Werner Reschke Jun. 23, 2011 at 1:21 AM

    Mr. Russell,

    Thanks for a great example to the axiom, "Never read a bible verse" (Greg Koukl's way of putting it). This is a fantastic example of how God's Word must be taken seriously,... it's not just a bunch of “do's and don'ts”.

    Thank you for following the hermeneutical principle of context, context, context. It reminds me of language and how it can not be separated from its culture. This is why we need biblical scholars who understand Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in order to understand the true meaning of scripture. There are some things that English (and other modern languages) just fail to translate in a straightforward manner.

    I look forward to your next commentary/exegesis.

    God's speed,
    -Werner

  • April Aug. 18, 2011 at 7:24 AM

    "Thank you for following the hermeneutical principle of context, context, context. It reminds me of language and how it can not be separated from its culture. This is why we need biblical scholars who understand Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in order to understand the true meaning of scripture. There are some things that English (and other modern languages) just fail to translate in a straightforward manner. "

    We need to depend on the Holy Spirit and his wisdom. Which is why we do not need biblical scholars and should realize that all languages are basically the same. For God made languages and will not set us up for failure, neither will he have us to depend on languages or culture to understand his word. We have the Holy Spirit to help teach and guide us,
    and give us understanding and wisdom.

    People should not read verses without consulting the Holy Spirit first. Once people go to him alone for wisdom and understanding of verses and passages, then he will give them the ability to understand with no need of scholars and such. Paul was a Pharisee was a scholar. There's a reason why he counted his knowledge as dung, besides anything that denies Christ.

    The Christians of Paul's day had the languages and culture spoken of, yet they had to be corrected. Jesus' disciples were corrected numerous times by him, including for not understanding. Not to mention the people of the Old Testament days and their foolishness. Dependence on carnal things like languages, cultures and humans achieves nothing. Plus, doing so is what causes people to believe things that aren't true or to lack faith in God.

  • Mike Rasberry May. 28, 2012 at 6:57 AM

    One thing, we tend to do is look for freedom without responsibility. When an unmarried man and unmarried woman share the same room, even if there is no sexual interaction, the questionable choice creates an environment where the cause of Christ is done damage.

    Our responsibility to the community at large and the Body of Christ in particular is that we live our lives in such a way as to demonstrate our commitment to Christ. That which is not of faith is sin. Christ never leads one to do that which violates principles of His Word.

  • gemariah Jul. 25, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    Thank you Mike R.
    You are spot on. Had the "adulterous" woman understood, she wouldn't have been in a situation to be used as an example. It's not enough to say nothing happened, it must be apparent to those around. As far as Jesus' hangouts are concerned, they were not accusing him, nor were they trying to set up him up in situations to make him impure. They were searching for the truth, healing, freedom from bodily ills.
    The quote is not about avoiding all accusations, it is about avoiding situations that put us in places where purity is not proveable.
    "Christ never leads one to do that which violates principles of His Word." Try the spirits -- the thoughts that come to us and think what are the qualities that will be expressed if I follow that lead?
    The Word is moral and ethical and pure. It is wisdom.
    How many of us can say that all of our thoughts come from God? I still have a lot of thoughts that have to be checked at the door and denied entrance.

  • Kathleen Wichterman (www.puzzlepieces.info) Sep. 9, 2012 at 3:31 AM

    Mr. Russell,

    First of all, thank you for your comments, and the heart with which you posted. I agree in part.

    Yes, Jesus mingled with sinners - those He came for, not the self-righteous. And, if led, and confirmed by Holy Spirit, we should do likewise . . . "Go into all the world and make disciples of men." But each of us has a different calling. Not all will minister to prostitutes, drunks, homosexuals, or drug dealers. Most likely we will be called to a ministry related to that which we have been delivered form (depression, greed, criticism, pride, etc). Yet wisdom says that we must keep a careful watch, lest we be tempted again.

    However, while I agree with many here that 1 Thess. 5:22 should not be taken out of context, I see that you added to the context what is not there. I don't see that Paul is referring to "what to do with evil prophetic utterances." Not at all. Rather he is listing basic areas of caution. 5:22 meaning, plain and simple, "abstain from every form of evil."

    This does not mean we can't minister to lost sinners, otherwise we would just be living in a self-imposed bubble, protecting ourselves from contamination - but certainly not the example of Jesus. But it does mean for ourselves to "not sin" when we, now found, know better, as Paul exhorts the Thessalonians." (See previous chapter 4:1-12 especially. "...just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God;...abstain from sexual immorality...possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust,...for God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness...")

    And I agree with Mike Rasberry giving an example of "appearance of evil" (though maybe not sinning - can cause confusion, especially to new believers), but that "Our responsibility to the community at large and the Body of Christ in particular is that we live our lives in such a way as to demonstrate our commitment to Christ. That which is not of faith is sin. Christ never leads one to do that which violates principles of His Word."

    This dialogue back and forth sure is "iron sharpening iron." Thank you all! God's blessings of peace, joy, and assurance. Amen.

  • Chancellor Roberts Jun. 10, 2013 at 7:16 AM

    I disagree with the blog article and with what many here are saying. Paul is giving a list of final instructions to the Thessalonian church (starting at 5:11) and those instructions cover a variety of issues; this isn't about what to do with evil prophetic utterances.

    I agree with the note in the Geneva Bible on this one where it explains: "Whatever has but the very show of evil, abstain from it." Mike Rasberry (in his comment above) had it right when he wrote: "Our responsibility to the community at large and the Body of Christ in particular is that we live our lives in such a way as to demonstrate our commitment to Christ. That which is not of faith is sin. Christ never leads one to do that which violates principles of His Word."

    We are lights shining in the darkness. We are to be Christian examples in every area of our lives. Thus, we have to be concerned about what our behavior looks like to those outside the Church. While Paul did explain to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 5) that he did not intend that they should avoid associating with sinners in the world, there is still room for exercising wisdom and caution in that regard, as is evident in the instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 (abstain from every appearance of evil) or Paul's admonition to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:33) that bad company corrupts good morals.

    Just as an example here, even something seemingly harmless like being alone in a car with another man's wife or a married man being alone in a car with a woman who is not his wife (maybe giving her a ride to or from church) or being alone at a restaurant or coffee shop with her can have the appearance of evil. This is one reason why pastors or elders or other men should never counsel women alone, but should always have his wife or (if he isn't married) a married couple present.

    Another example: there might be nothing wrong with having an alcoholic beverage (the scriptures teach not that drinking alcohol is a sin, but that drunkenness is sin), but chugging beers at the company picnic is probably not something Christians should be doing.

    What does our particular behavior show to outsiders (unbelievers) and even to other believers (see Romans 14 for that one)? What is our behavior doing to our testimony? Are we showing ourselves Christ-like in our behaviors, our work ethic, our dealings with others?

    There is no valid basis for saying that "abstain from every form" (or appearance, as in some translations) "of evil" refers to avoiding evil prophetic utterances.

  • Alexa Jul. 13, 2013 at 7:38 AM

    As a young christian (some 20 years ago) I was hounded by my 'elders' to avoid every appearance of evil. I was not allowed to be alone with my best friend because he happened to be a male and other people might think I was having sex with him. While this was devastating enough (because I had no close female friends), I soon found out that many other things could also be perceived by others as evil - movies, card games, not dressing up for church, joking, going to certain neighborhoods or places (such as the 'bad' part of town or video arcades), eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, shopping at certain stores...the list was endless. I had read about grace and freedom in Christ, but I didn't find it. Eventually I became depressed because I was afraid to do anything for fear i'd offend someone and turn them away from Christ.

    So I rebelled -from the church anyway. I sought God will all I had, crying out to Him for truth, because His word told me about abundant life and grace and mercy and freedom and love and I had not found any of that in the church I had been attending.

    I have since learned the truth about 1 Thessalonians 5:22. In context, this verse is a part of verses 20 and 21, which do talk about prophesies and testing them. These verses come directly after the admonition to not quench the Spirit. Therefore, these verses are clearly speaking about allowing prophesies to be spoken, but testing them to see which are from God and which are not. Those that show any appearance of evil should be dismissed as not from God because if the prophesy is from the Spirit, He will speak in ways that clearly avoid evil and things that appear evil.

    This verse then should not be used to restrict the actions of believers. There are plenty of other verses that talk about how we should live under grace and in freedom without using those things as excuses to continue living in sin. Scripture should always be examined in context and with the Holy Spirit's guidance.

    Those Christians that preach this verse out of context are doing a great disservice to the body of Christ by keeping believers in bondage to the law and thus causing some to turn away from the faith and causing non-believers to shun the bondage they see in the church.

  • David T. Jun. 25, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    I think that the emphasis is on the "manifestations" of evil and not the "appearances" of evil . I also agree that the evil is likely unattached to the prophetic utterances and rather, more in line with scriptures like 1 Cor 15.3 "where evil company" is said to corrupt good morals. While believers are to be engaged in reaching the world, they are to see themselves as distinct from it. This is what sanctification is. A redefining of our relationship to the world. We no longer relate to it, but share with it; we no longer borrow its philosophies, but preach truth to it.

  • G.B Nov. 19, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    Be careful. Your interpretation is very misleading regarding Jesus' character, especially to a lost or naive person. Jesus merely being around the type of people you named is not an "appearance of evil." It was ministry. Also, he is the Son of God and did many things that we are not capable of. The reality is he was not participating in anything evil just by being around and interacting with these people. He did not participate in their lifestyles nor did he agree with their ways; but encouraged them to repent and follow him. You may have been making your point with an specific reference in mind, but it is destructive to say that we should rid it all together for that one point.

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